Parents, Your Children Were Never Intended to Give You Identity

The Identity Quest

Human beings were designed to be interpreters. We were created to be rational. We were made to be always thinking. Our thoughts always precede and therefore shape and direct our activity. No action that we take, no choice that we make, and none of the words that we say are in a vacuum. All our actions and reactions are connected to who we think we are, who we think God is, what we think life is about, what we think is important, where we go to find help, and what we look to in order to give us peace, rest, and security. At street level, we don’t really live based on the facts of our existence, but based on the sense that we are making out of those facts. That’s why you can have two people in the very same situation who respond in very different ways to the same set of facts. Your belief system or your worldview is always being exposed by how you parent those who have been entrusted to your care. You don’t respond as a parent because of who your children are and because of what they’re doing, but because of the way you make sense out of who they are and what you’re doing.

Here are a couple examples. If you say to your child, “I can’t believe you would do this to me!” you are not responding to the facts of the situation, but to your interpretation of those facts. Your interpretation is that what your child has done, whether he acknowledges it or not, is a personal attack on you in some way. Or if you spend more time punishing your children for breaking the law than you do talking to your children about Jesus, who perfectly kept the law on their behalf because God knew they never would, your response is not shaped by the fact of their disobedience, but by the sense you are making of their disobedience and how it will change. It is important for all parents to examine the system of belief that shapes their moment-by-moment interactions with their children.


Paul David Tripp

This book sets forth fourteen practical and gospel-centered principles that help parents view their role through the lens of God’s grace, radically changing how they interact with their children.

One of the central components of this personal system of belief is the question of identity and meaning and purpose. Every parent asks and in some way answers the “Who am I?” question, and every parent asks and answers the “Where is my meaning and purpose in life to be found?” question. And the way that you answer these questions will determine how you speak and act toward your kids. There are only two places for you and me to look for identity. One place to look is vertically, getting our identity and the direction and assessment of potential from God—from his love and acceptance, his forgiving grace, his constant presence, his power and his promises, and the glory of all of these that he’s showered down on us. When we do this, we come to parenting with hearts that are full and satisfied, we live with courage and hope, and we are not needy, because we have found all that we need in him. As Peter writes, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Pet. 1:3–4).

Notice the period of time that the hope of this passage is addressing. Peter is not talking about salvation past or salvation future, but about the work of God for you right here, right now. As a Christian parent, no matter what is happening with your kids, you can wake up in the morning and know that you are deeply and faithfully loved by the most important person in the universe. Because God loves you, he hasn’t left you to your own wisdom, strength, and resources. Because he loves you, he will never forsake you in your parenting struggle. Because he loves you, he has connected you to things that are vastly bigger than you. Because he loves you, he not only forgives you, but he also gives you the grace to do better. Because he loves you, he works daily to grow and change you so that you are better able to do what he’s called you to do. Because he loves you, he works to satisfy your heart and fill you with joy that doesn’t depend on circumstances. He loves you so much that he has come to live inside you. He doesn’t just make promises to you; he is present with you in all his power, grace, and glory so that you can have peace of heart, purpose and direction, and courage to face your parenting day.

If you are not resting in your vertical identity, you will look horizontally, searching to find yourself and your reason for living in something in the creation. That could be your possessions, your accomplishments, your career, your spouse, your children, and the list goes on. The problem with this is that created things were never designed to give you identity. They were never designed to satisfy your heart and give you peace. They were not made to give you meaning and purpose. Every good thing in creation is designed to point you to the One who alone is able to give you the identity, peace, and meaning that your heart seeks.

It never works to look to a broken, dysfunctional creation for identity. It always leads to disappointment, fear, anxiety, drivenness, and more control than any one of us will ever have (read 2 Pet. 1:8–9). Peter actually proposes that you can be a Christian and have a life that is “ineffective or unfruitful” because you have forgotten who you are and what you have been given. Sadly, I think this describes many parents. They are looking to get from their children what they have already been given in Christ, and they don’t know that they are doing it. And their anxiety and drivenness as a parent is the result of identity amnesia. Identity amnesia will always lead to identity replacement. What this means for a parent is that if you are not getting your identity from God and the work of his Son, you will probably try to get it from your children.

Now there are three things to say about trying to get your identity from your children. First, it is a very natural thing to do and a very hard thing to fight. In fact, probably every parent falls into this trap in some way. Second, parenting is a miserable place to look for identity. Think about it: you are parenting lost, rebellious, foolish, blind, self-ruling sinners. I’m not picking on your children. I have just described every fallen human being born into God’s world. Third, it is a crushing burden for your children to have to get up every morning and carry the heavy load of your identity and meaning and purpose and all the expectations and demands that flow from it. No child will carry that load well.

Every good thing in creation is designed to point you to the One who alone is able to give you the identity, peace, and meaning that your heart seeks.

Your Children Can’t Save You

What I have just described is exactly what was happening to Sally and Jamie, and neither one of them knew it. Sally thought she was just being a good mom. But what she didn’t realize is that that system of unrelenting demands was not being done by Sally for Jamie, but by Sally for Sally. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Sally was self centered, “it’s all about me,” but she was looking for Jamie to give her a kind of meaning, purpose, and peace of heart that he could never give her. She looked to this fifteen-year-old boy to give her life worth, and he was breaking under the load. The result was that they were both miserable and in a war that neither of them understood or wanted to be in.

Don’t be too hard on Sally. In some way we all look for identity and security where it cannot be found. We all tend to try to get too much of our meaning and purpose from our children. We all tend to ride the up-and-down roller coaster of their compliance or resistance. We all tend to need them to be successful too much. And when we look to our children to give us what we already have in Jesus, we drive them to succeed not simply because we know it is best for them, but because we need their success to feel good about ourselves and to have a reason to get up in the morning and continue. We need their love and respect in order to feel good about our lives. We need them to look a certain way and act a certain way in order to feel that our work as a parent has been worth it. So although we love our kids, we don’t just bring love to our parenting of them, but neediness, which brings self-centeredness, an entitlement, a demandingness, and a drivenness to our parenting. Even though we don’t know it, we begin to treat our kids as if they were given to us to be a living argument or case statement for the fact that we are good people and are doing our job in life well. And perhaps the desire to raise children that we can be proud of is really a desire to feel good about ourselves and the way we have lived our life.

Parents, this is an exhausting and discouraging way to live. It is exhausting to need little, immature sinners to perform well in order to feel good about yourself and your life. It’s exhausting to chase success after success, never being fully satisfied. It’s discouraging to feed off the love of someone too immature to give it to you faithfully. It’s discouraging to personalize your children’s failures as if they were intentionally plotting against you. It’s exhausting to load your schedule with activity after activity until you have little free time left because you need your children to succeed. It’s discouraging to have to face the sin and struggle of your children when you need near perfection to feel it’s been worth it. It’s exhausting and discouraging to ask your kids to give you what they cannot give and for you to need so deeply what you have no power to produce. And as your children get older, they begin to realize that much of what you have been doing has not been for them, but for yourself.

Parents, your children can’t give you life. They can’t give you sturdy hope. They can’t give you worth. They can’t give you peace of heart. They can’t give you right desires and motivation. They can’t give you strength to go on. They can’t give you confidence and courage in the middle of a trial. And they can’t give you that ultimate, heart-satisfying love that you long for. I’m going to say it in a way that I hope will get your attention. It just never works to ask your children to be your own personal saviors. This is a burden they will never bear well, and it will introduce trouble and struggle into your relationship with them. Jesus is your life, and this frees you and your children from the burden of asking them to give you what your Savior has already given you.

Sally was growingly fearful, angry, and discouraged, and Jamie was exhausted and angry too. The more she demanded, the more he resisted. Her relationship with Jamie was disintegrating right before her eyes, but she did not see it and kept driving forward. It was all the sad result of looking to get her identity from a broken and immature young man who would never be able to deliver it to her. Parents, we can do better because of the presence, promises, and power of Jesus that have been lavished on us by grace.

This article is adapted from Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family by Paul David Tripp.

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